Do Older Adults Need Vitamins, Supplements?

senior man pouring pills into hand

Nov. 30, 2012 — At least half of adults age 65 and above take daily vitamins and other supplements, but only a fraction actually need them, says an Emory University expert.

The majority of older adults, he says, can improve their diet to get needed nutrients.

“A lot of money is wasted in providing unnecessary supplements to millions of people who don’t need them,” says Donald B. McCormick, PhD, an Emory professor emeritus of biochemistry and the graduate program in nutrition and health sciences at Emory.

He challenges what he says is a widely held belief that the older people get, the more vitamins and mineral supplements they need.

The scientific backup for that doesn’t exist, he says. “We know too little to suggest there is a greater need in the elderly for most of these vitamins and minerals.”

“A supplement does not cure the aging process,” he says. And in some cases, supplements may do harm, he says. Expense is another factor.

His report, which reviews numerous studies of vitamins and mineral supplements, is published in Advances in Nutrition.

Duffy MacKay, ND, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition, an industry group representing dietary supplement makers, agrees that starting with a good diet is the best way to get needed nutrients.

But he says that is not always reality, especially for older adults who may have obstacles such as a reduced appetite.

Older-Adult Nutrient Needs

McCormick reviewed studies on dietary supplements in older adults published in the last 12 years.

He says that ”it is apparent that changes in requirements for the elderly do not suggest massive supplement use covering most micronutrients.” He says minor diet changes can fill needs for nutrients, ”with supplements included only where there is evidence of serious limitation of intake.”

He disagrees with a study suggesting that older adults should take two multivitamins a day. He found no evidence that older adults need more thiamin, riboflavin, or niacin than younger people. Some older adults may need more vitamin B6, B12, and folate, research suggests.

But vitamin C needs do not seem to change with age, he says, if an older adult does not smoke cigarettes.

McCormick also found no evidence that absorption or the body’s use of vitamin E changes as people get older. He says there is a decrease in the way the skin makes vitamin D. So for some older adults, supplemental vitamin D may be needed. In some research, taking 800 to 1,000 IUs of vitamin D a day helped women who were past menopause.

Copper requirements don’t seem to change with age, either, McCormick says.

Older adults often take in less chromium, but he says there is not evidence that there are any health consequences.

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Does Air Pollution Hurt Memory of Older Adults?

senior man in traffic tunnel

Nov. 16, 2012 — Air pollution may be bad for older brains, a new study shows.

Older adults who live in areas of high pollution did not do as well on tests of memory and other thinking skills, according to a new study.

“We know that air pollution is harmful for a child’s developing brain,” says researcher Jennifer Ailshire, PhD. She is a National Institute on Aging postdoctoral fellow at the Andrus Gerontology Center of the University of Southern California.

“Now we are starting to understand that air pollution is also harmful for the aging brain,” she says.

She presented the findings today at the Gerontological Society of America meeting in San Diego.

Air Pollution and Health

Air pollution has long been linked to a higher risk of heart and breathing problems in older adults. It has also been linked to breathing problems in children.

Her new study, Ailshire says, is one of the first to examine the effects of air pollution on the memory and other thinking skills of older men and women who reflect the general population.

She evaluated nearly 15,000 men and women, age 50 and older. They took part in the 2004 Health and Retirement Study. They were interviewed and tested by phone.

”They are asked to do memory tests — given a list of words and asked to repeat them,” Ailshire says. “They are asked to name the date, the president, and do some counting tests.” Language is also tested.

The test scores range from 1 to 35.

Ailshire then looked at the 2004 annual average level of fine air particulate matter from the Environmental Protection Agency’s monitoring systems around the country.

She found that exposures to these small particulates ranged from low to high. Some were at or above the level that the Environmental Protection Agency says could be linked with health problems.

When Ailshire compared exposures and test scores, she found that every 10-point increase in air pollution exposure was linked with a one-third point drop in the score.

That may seem small, but she says it is the equivalent of aging three years.

Those who live in busy urban areas, such as Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta, are more likely to be exposed to this type of pollution, she says. It’s produced by road dust, among other sources. Levels are higher in sprawling urban areas with heavy traffic.

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